The rate of military suicides and violent crimes have increased nearly 20% since last year as service members deal with the stressors associated with the pandemic, war-zone deployments, national disasters and civil unrest.
Senior Army leaders have seen as much as a 30% rise in suicides and have made the well-being of soldiers and their families the Army’s top priority, overtaking combat readiness and weapons modernization, according to a report by the Associated Press.
“The Pentagon refused to provide 2020 data or discuss the issue, but Army officials said discussions in Defense Department briefings indicate there has been up to a 20% jump in overall military suicides this year,” the AP said. “The numbers vary by service. The active Army’s 30% spike — from 88 last year to 114 this year — pushes the total up because it’s the largest service. The Army Guard is up about 10%, going from 78 last year to 86 this year. The Navy total is believed to be lower this year.”
The Navy and Marine officials declined to provide commentary according to the AP.
Although Army leaders say they can’t directly tie the rise to the virus, the correlation to the timing is a strong coincidence.
The report comes as other emergency workers impacted by the pandemic, including New York City’s EMTs, for example.
“I can’t say scientifically, but what I can say is – I can read a chart and a graph, and the numbers have gone up in behavioral health related issues,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told the AP in an interview.
Pointing to increases in Army suicides, murders and other violent behavior, he added, “We cannot say definitively it is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up.”
High profile murders at Ft. Hood have also added to the tally.
Army leaders also said troops have been under pressure for nearly two decades of war. Those deployments, compounded by the virus, hurricane and wildfire response and civil unrest missions, have taken a toll.
Soldiers’ 10-month deployments have been stretched to eleven months because of the two-week corona virus quarantines at the beginning and end. McCarthy said the Army is considering shortening deployments.
The complications of living during the pandmiec have taken a toll on civilian lives as well. One in four young people between the ages of 18 and 24 has “seriously considered” suicide during the pandemic, according to data released in August from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Gen. James McConville, Army chief of staff told the AP there is renewed focus on taking “the time that they need to come back together and recover.”
“We were very focused on readiness four years ago because we had some readiness challenges, and we did a great job. The force is very, very ready now. But I think it’s time now to focus on people,” he said.
He mentioned the use of “stand-up” days, where commanders focus on bringing people together, making sure they connect with each other and their families and ensuring they have strong values in how they treat each other.
Isolation is another factor taking its toll on veterans and civilians alike, but particularly more so with wounded veterans.
Veterans suffering from PTSD for example may suffer with exacerbated symptoms.
Sergio Alfaro, who served in the Army for 4 1/2 years, said fears associated with the virus intensified his PTSD and suicidal thoughts.
His fears turned from physical threats from people on the street to ones of wondering if he would get coronavirus by simply being too close to someone. Others in support groups, he said, “are just sick of living this way, worried about what’s coming over the next hill, what next horrible thing are we going to be confronted with.”
Roger Brooks, a senior mental health specialist at the Wounded Warrior Project, said veterans are reporting increased suicidal symptoms and anxiety. Between April and the end of August, the group saw a 48% jump in referrals to mental health providers and a 10% increase in mental health calls and virtual support sessions, compared to the previous five months, as reported by the AP.
Brooks said there’s anecdotal evidence that the pandemic has made wounded warriors like amputees feel more isolated, unable to connect as well with support groups. He said injured vets have seen disruptions in medical visits for pain management and other treatments.
A Pentagon report on 2018 suicides said the military rate was roughly equivalent to that of the U.S. general population, after adjusting for the fact that the military is more heavily male and younger than the civilian population. The 2018 rate for active duty military was 24.8 per 100,000, while the overall civilian rate for that year was 14.2, but the rate for younger civilian men ranged from 22.7 to 27.7 per 100,000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.2018 DoD Annual Suicide Report_FINAL_25 SEP 19_508c
Brooks said there’s anecdotal evidence that the pandemic has made wounded warriors like amputees feel more isolated, unable to connect as well with support groups. He said injured vets have seen disruptions in medical visits for pain management and other treatment.
One positive result of the virus is that it has forced an increase in telehealth calls and online visits with mental health providers within the Army. That has generated some positive results, such as fewer missed appointments.
Another positive sign is that the stigma associated with behavioral health is dissipating within the military and among veterans because of the ability to seek treatment from home through telehealth.
Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he sought help while heading U.S. Strategic Command from 2016 to 2019. He didn’t reveal details but said he saw a psychiatrist – a rare public admission by a senior officer.
“I felt like I needed to get some help,” Hyten said in a video message. “I felt like I needed to talk to somebody.” He encouraged others to do the same, if needed, without fear of hurting their career.